Stupidity

Carlo Cipolla

Stupidity is a lack of intelligence, understanding, reason, wit, or sense. It may be innate, assumed, or reactive – ‘being ‘stupid with grief’ as a defence against trauma,’ a state marked with ‘grief and despair…making even simple daily tasks a hardship.’ The root word ‘stupid,’ which can serve as an adjective or noun, comes from the Latin verb ‘stupere,’ for ‘being numb’ or ‘astonished,’ and is related to ‘stupor’ (in Roman culture ”the stupidus of the mimes’ was a sort of professional buffoon – the ‘fall-man,’ the eternal he-who-gets-kicked.’ The word entered the English language in the 16th century; since then, stupidity has become a pejorative appellation for human misdeeds, whether purposeful or accidental, due to absence of mental capacity.

The modern English word ‘stupid’ has a broad range of application, from being slow of mind (indicating a lack of intelligence, care or reason), dullness of feeling or sensation (torpidity, senseless, insensitivity), or lacking interest or point (vexing, exasperating). It can either infer a congenital lack of capacity for reasoning, or a temporary state of daze or slow-mindedness.

James F. Wells, in his book, ‘Understanding Stupidity,’ defines stupidity thusly, ‘The term may be used to designate a mentality which is considered to be informed, deliberate, and maladaptive.’ Dr. Welles distinguishes stupidity from ignorance; one must know they are acting in their own worst interest. Secondly, it must be a choice, not a forced act or accident. Lastly, it requires the activity to be maladaptive, in that it is in the worst interest of the actor, and specifically done to prevent adaption to new data or existing circumstances.

According to Dr. Welles, mental schemas, which help us adapt to our environment and process new ideas, can also, simultaneously, be maladaptive: ‘However adaptive a schema may be, it will also be maladaptive to the extent that built-in biases compromise data so that perceptions will conform to expectations and desires. In addition, a schema’s behavioral program (which presumably was adaptive when formed) might become maladaptive as conditions change. If fundamental conditions change significantly, maintaining a schema may be maladaptive. On the other hand, altering behavior to fit fantasies may also be maladaptive. Just when and how much change is needed are very subjective matters, and the schema is inherently biased about maintaining both its integrity and existence.’

The economic historian Carlo Maria Cipolla is famous for his essays about human stupidity. The essay, ‘The Fundamental Laws of Human Stupidity,’ explores the controversial subject. Stupid people are seen as a group, more powerful by far than major organizations (such as the Mafia and the industrial complex), which without regulations, leaders or manifesto nonetheless manages to operate to great effect and with incredible coordination.

These are Cipolla’s five fundamental laws of stupidity: 1) Always and inevitably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation. 2) The probability that a given person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic possessed by that person. 3) A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process. 4) Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people; they constantly forget that at any time anywhere, and in any circumstance, dealing with or associating themselves with stupid individuals invariably constitutes a costly error. 5) A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.

German American psychiatrist Fritz Perls claimed of Albert Einstein’s remark that ‘Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity,’ that ‘what is much more widespread than the actual stupidity is the playing stupid, turning off your ear, not listening, not seeing.’ Canadian psychiatrist Eric Berne (and author of ‘Games People Play’), described the game of ‘Stupid’ as having ‘the thesis…’I laugh with you at my own clumsiness and stupidity.’ For the protagonist, ‘there is considerable external gain, since the less [he] learns, the more effectively he can play….He has known from an early age that everyone will be satisfied with him as long as he is stupid, despite any expressions to the contrary. People are surprised when in times of stress, if he decides to come through, it turns out that he is not stupid at all – any more than is the ‘stupid’ younger son in the fairy tale.’

In a Kleinian view (psychoanalysis with a focus on interpreting very ‘deep’ and primitive emotions and fantasies) pseudo-stupidity is a consequence of the massive tendency toward projection and the resulting inability to internalize new knowledge in the arrogant. Austrian American psychiatrist Otto Fenichel maintained that ‘quite a percentage of so-called feeble-mindedness turns out to be pseudo-debility, conditioned by inhibition….Every intellect begins to show weakness when affective motives are working against it.’ He suggests that ‘people become stupid ad hoc, that is, when they do not want to understand, where understanding would cause anxiety or guilt feeling, or would endanger an existing neurotic equilibrium.’

In rather different fashion, author Doris Lessing argued that ‘there is no fool like an intellectual…a kind of clever stupidity, bred out of a line of logic in the head, nothing to do with experience.’ In the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment, a valorization of the irrational, of the foolish and stupid, emerged, epitomized for example in William Blake’s dictum that ‘if the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.’ A century later, Carl Jung would emphasize that ‘it requires no art to become stupid; the whole art lies in extracting wisdom from stupidity. Stupidity is the mother of the wise, but cleverness never.’

French philosopher Michel Foucault argued ‘categories…guarantee our intelligence and form the a priori of excluded stupidity,’ so that (in order to profit from the excluded) ‘the philosopher must be sufficiently perverse to play the game of truth and error badly…to persist in his confrontation with stupidity, to remain motionless to the point of stupefaction in order to approach it successfully and mime it, to…await the shock of difference.’

The fool or buffoon has been a central character in much comedy. Some analysis of Shakespeare’s comedy has found that his characters tend to hold mutually contradictory positions; because this implies a lack of careful analysis it indicates stupidity on their part.

The first book in English on stupidity was ‘A Short Introduction to the History of Stupidity’ by Walter B. Pitkin (1932): ‘Stupidity can easily be proved the supreme Social Evil. Three factors combine to establish it as such. First and foremost, the number of stupid people is legion. Secondly, most of the power in business, finance, diplomacy and politics is in the hands of more or less stupid individuals. Finally, high abilities are often linked with serious stupidity.’

According to ‘In Search of Stupidity: Over Twenty Years of High Tech Marketing Disasters,’ (2003) by Merrill R. Chapman: ‘The claim that high-tech companies are constantly running into ‘new’ and ‘unique’ situations that they cannot possibly be expected to anticipate and intelligently resolve is demonstrably false….The truth is that technology companies are constantly repeating the same mistakes with wearying consistency…and many of the stupid things these companies do are completely avoidable.’

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